If U.S. Pulls Out Of Afghanistan, Will It Stay In Central Asia?
Most talk of security in Central Asia these days revolves around what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014. The widespread expectation is that after U.S. and NATO combat forces withdraw from the country, leaving behind some smaller training/advising force, security will deteriorate in Afghanistan, with unpredictable -- but probably not good -- results for Central Asia. But most scenarios assume some sort of U.S./Western presence in Afghanistan post-2014, minimizing the potential for chaos in that country. But what if the U.S. pulls out altogether? After all, few expected that the U.S. would entirely pull out of Iraq, but after political negotiations broke down over the status of U.S. forces, that's what happened there. Couldn't the same thing happen in Afghanistan? And what would that mean for Central Asia?
That scenario is looking increasingly likely. The New York Times has reported that negotiations between the U.S. and Afghanistan governments are close to breaking down, and time is running out:
The United States and Afghanistan have reached an impasse in their talks over the role that American forces will play here beyond next year, officials from both countries say, raising the distinct possibility of a total withdrawal — an outcome that the Pentagon’s top military commanders dismissed just months ago.
American officials say they are preparing to suspend negotiations absent a breakthrough in the coming weeks, and a senior administration official said talk of resuming them with President Hamid Karzai’s successor, who will be chosen in elections set for next April, is, “frankly, not very likely.”
So what would that mean for Central Asia? It would certainly exacerbate the potential for "spillover," a buzzword that is getting an increasing amount of scrutiny, most recently in a two-part series for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, "Talebs in Tajikistan? The ‘terrorist spill-over’ hype." As that piece argues (and most serious analysts tend to agree) the potential for spillover is much less likely than it is being portrayed by interested parties, which include the autocratic governments of the region and the Kremlin, which is using the threat as a justification for building up its military presence in Central Asia. Nevertheless, a complete U.S. departure would almost certainly increase the chances for instability to spread into Central Asia.
Another interesting, and more specific, question is: What would that scenario mean for U.S. military relations with Central Asia? On the one hand, if the U.S. has no forces in Afghanistan, it will not have any need for the rear logistics facilities and supply routes that have been established in Central Asia. Since the U.S. military's presence in Central Asia has been driven by its presence in Afghanistan, it stands to reason that removing the latter will obviate the need for the former. That's what Dmitry Gorenburg argues, in a very good post on U.S. security interests in Central Asia:
The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.
Independent of what is happening in Afghanistan, the Kyrgyzstan government has already kicked the U.S. out of the air base it uses in that country. But Gorenburg is probably correct to guess that if the U.S. fully leaves Afghanistan, then all of the U.S. military activity -- the Northern Distribution Network, the military aid programs that in effect pay for that transit access -- would likely disappear as well.
On the other hand, to the extent that the U.S. is concerned about instability in Afghanistan, it will want to have some sort of quick access to the country. One could imagine some kind of CIA/special operations presence close to the Afghanistan border, comparable to what the U.S. has been operating in Yemen and Somalia, for example. And in fact there have been rumors floating around Washington to that effect. We shall see...